'I do not want to die': Central American exodus grows

Thousands of Hondurans wait on Mexico's border, hoping to find respite from poverty and political violence.

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    Hundreds line up to leave Guatemala in order to apply for a Mexican humanitarian visa [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]
    Hundreds line up to leave Guatemala in order to apply for a Mexican humanitarian visa [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

    Guatemala City and Tecun Uman - Noemi Banegas and her family spent the night on the border bridge that served as a pathway between Guatemala and Mexico.

    After a 1,200km journey from their home in southern Honduras, they were among the hundreds of Central Americans waiting their turn to enter Mexican immigration. "This is the first time we are making this journey," Banegas told Al Jazeera on the pavement of the Mexican end of the bridge spanning the Suchiate River.

    Banegas, her husband and their two children, aged three and seven, fled Honduras last Monday with hundreds of other Honduran migrants and refugees.

    There are now thousands of Hondurans at and around the Mexican border, fleeing unemployment, poverty, violence and political persecution.

    "Our main motivation is unemployment, poverty," said Banegas. "The cost of living is expensive. There are no jobs."

    Banegas's husband worked as a day labourer in the cornfields of San Francisco de Coray, 120km southwest of the Honduran capital, in the Valle department. But the region often experienced drought and, even when there was work, the 100 Lempira ($4) daily wage was not enough to support his family.

    Thousands of Central Americans fled last week to the Tecun Uman border crossing. Hundreds crossed into Mexico without being processed, but most have been applying for humanitarian visas at the border. The visas allow migrants and refugees to live, work and travel in Mexico for a period of one year, with the possibility of renewal.

    Nearly 6,000 humanitarian visa applicants have been registered over the past week by Mexican immigration officials at the border. As of Sunday night, 4,912 adults and 1,007 children had requested visas, which the Mexican government was processing over several days.

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    The overwhelming majority of the migrants and refugees are Hondurans, representing roughly 80 percent of the current exodus. But there are more than 1,000 applicants from El Salvador and Guatemala, more than 100 from Nicaragua and a few from Haiti and Brazil.

    Hondurans also dominated similar migrant and refugee caravans last fall, when more than 10,000 Central Americans collectively fled north in several highly visible waves. They faced a much more closed-door policy at the Mexican border under the previous government.

    Extortion pressure

    Now the site of peaceful and orderly humanitarian visa processing, the Tecun Uman border bridge was the site of clashes last year when the passage of thousands of migrants and refugees was blocked by Mexican immigration authorities and federal police used tear gas and anti-barrier projectiles, killing one Honduran.

    Many Hondurans are fleeing extreme violence at home. The homicide rate in Honduras skyrocketed following a 2009 coup d'etat, and Banegas and her family were affected.

    Wearing a T-shirt that read "I was born to sparkle", Banegas's seven-year-old daughter held up a photocopy of the newspaper article covering her grandfather's murder on July 17, 2012.

    Concepcion Banegas Martinez owned a minibus and drove regularly between San Pedro Sula and Lima, two cities with high levels of violent crime in northwestern Honduras. The transportation sector is plagued by criminal groups that extort those plying the roads. Owners, drivers and driver's helpers who do not pay are killed.

    "My father made several attempts to leave [to the US] due to the extortion, but he was deported," said Banegas, whose father was killed before he could attempt to flee again.

    Francisco*, who in recent years drove a taxi in San Pedro Sula, watched as his colleagues were killed after failing or refusing to pay up. The 42-year-old father of four young kids told Al Jazeera that he did not want to die.

    Francisco hoped to find work in Mexico to support his family back home. Some migrants and refugees hoped to make it to the United States, but most say they planned to take the Mexican government up on its offer to allow them to live and work in the country.

    A group of Central Americans display their humanitarian visas shortly after receiving them from the Mexican government [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera] 

    Hondurans continue to flee

    Meanwhile, more than 400 migrants and refugees left their country on Monday morning from San Pedro Sula, hoping to catch up with the caravans that left last week. Another caravan of 300 people departed Honduras on Saturday.

    Roxana Palma, a psychologist at a migrant shelter in Guatemala City, told Al Jazeera she believed this form of migration would continue.

    "The caravans are more economic and secure way for people to travel," Palma said Monday at the Casa del Migrante, part of a network of church-run shelters that provides migrants with food and a place to rest while en route to Mexico and the US.

    "I don't believe that the Mexican visa is the incentive for people are migrating. I believe that the incentive is the necessities that they have in their countries," she said.

    Political crises in several Central American countries have also contributed to the exodus of migrants and refugees.

    In Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernandez was reelected in November 2017 despite a constitutional ban on reelection and widespread reports of fraud.

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    Nationwide opposition protests and highway blockades lasted for months despite violent crackdowns by police and military forces that left dozens killed, hundreds wounded and more than 1,000 detained.

    The Honduran crisis has never been resolved. A national dialogue process fell apart last month. A dozen people remain in pre-trial detention on protest-related charges. Protests and blockades are scheduled in the week, leading up to the one-year anniversary of the January 27, 2018 inauguration of Hernandez's second term.

    In Guatemala, a political crisis began in 2017 when President Jimmy Morales began attacking the UN-backed international anti-corruption commission investigating him. The Morales administration is also now defying the country's highest court's rulings.

    'Couldn't kill my brothers and sisters' 

    Nicaragua erupted in protest against the government of President Daniel Ortega in April 2018, leading to clashes that killed hundreds. As the crisis escalated, tens of thousands have sought to flee the country.

    Ortega first rose to power following the victory of the leftist Sandinista rebels against the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979. He was later elected president in 2007 but has since removed constitutional term limits on the presidency and moved the country back to a more authoritarian style of governance.

    By the end of 2018, at least 28,000 Nicaraguans had applied for asylum in Costa Rica. Yet some Nicaraguans, such as 27-year-old Sergio Cabrera, hoped to find asylum in the north.

    Standing outside the Casa del Migrante with a handful of Hondurans in Guatemala City on Monday, Cabrera explained that he fled home after being deployed last year as part of a crackdown on protests against Ortega's government.

    "The orders in the beginning were to use rubber bullets, but [as] protests grew bigger, we were ordered to use real bullets," Cabrera said. "I couldn't kill my brothers and sisters."

    The Interamerican Human Rights Commission has confirmed the killings of 325 people as part of that repressive campaign. More than 600 protesters have been imprisoned, according to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights. Ortega expelled United Nations human rights observers last year.

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    "We were not ordered to defuse the protests or to go and protect people, but rather to kill. We were ordered to generate fear," Cabrera said. "Because of my Christian principles, I couldn't kill. I couldn't live with that on my conscience."

    Three months after deserting the police in July 2018, Cabrera was arrested and tortured, he said.

    One of his relatives, a high-ranking police officer, freed him and urged him to leave the country. "I am taking advantage of these caravans to reach the north in order to seek asylum in Canada."

    Over the weekend, someone stole his identification documents while he waited in Tecun Uman to apply for a humanitarian visa in Mexico. Unable to move on without the papers, he returned to Guatemala City to request new ones from the Nicaraguan embassy.

    But approaching the government from which he has fled was daunting. "They will know I am here," he explained. "I don't have any other option. I cannot return to my country."

    *The individual's name has been changed at his request, for the safety of his family back home.

    Jeff Abbott reported from Guatemala City and Sandra Cuffe reported from the Tecun Uman border crossing between Guatemala and Mexico.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News